What is Metaphysics? Branches & Questions

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Metaphysics, formed through a combination of the words Metá (which means transcendent over) and physiká (physics), is a lively branch of philosophy that specializes in the study of existence and the nature of being. It has its origins in Aristotelian Greek philosophy and is still very much debated and discussed by contemporary metaphysicians today.

It is important to note that metaphysics should not be confused with science. It might have the word “physics” in it but the questions it deals with are very much beyond the scope of the hard sciences (physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology etc.). Rather, metaphysics deals with a different category of knowledge altogether. This is not to say that there is no relationship between science and metaphysics for there surely is. For example, cosmogony, the branch of metaphysics that studies the beginning of the universe, can be informed by scientific findings such as in physics and Big Bang cosmology, but the questions metaphysics asks (Was there a transcendent cause to the Big Bang? What was the nature of this cause? Did time exist before the Big Bang?) are not scientific ones hence cannot be settled by science itself.

A key assumption that the metaphysician makes when he does his work is that reality is absolute, that existence exists. This is an axiomatic principle that posits a reality that exists independent of human thought and views. This reality is objective in that human beings do not invent it but exist within it, discover it, and interact with it. Moreover, metaphysicians also assumes that they can know things about this reality and that the questions they ask (and attempt to answer) are in someway reflective of it. Moreover, like we have already seen in our previous essay, philosophy is important because it is the study of the nature of reality. And I would argue (as well as assume it to be commensensical for most people) that the more we know about the reality in which we find ourselves the better off we are for a number reasons. Metaphysics, like the broader discipline of philosophy, is important in the same way. It asks thoughtful questions that grapple with the nature of reality itself. These questions are not only significant for one’s own personal worldview and understanding of the universe but also because these questions are often profoundly spiritual and theological in nature. The way many of us view God will depend on the conclusions that we draw from the questions metaphysics asks. So what are some of these branches of metaphysics and their accompanying questions they ask?

There are several focus areas that metaphysics engages in great depth. First, as mentioned, there is cosmogony that studies the beginning of the universe. It asks questions related to causation: What caused the universe? And can we known anything about this cause? Second, questions related to free will and determinism. Given developments in the science of psychology as well as the hard sciences, especially neuroscience, can the modern person still hold to the reality of free will? Or should free will not exist, and determinism be true, then what implications does this have for us human beings? Third, how are we to understand the concepts of space and time? Why, for example, does space have three dimensions and not five or seven? Is space even a real thing or a substance? Does it exist independently of human beings? What about time? Does time actually exist? Most philosophers hold to two theories of time: A and B theory which hinge on the question of whether or not time an illusion or if it is really structured in a past/present/future continuum (the realist position). Fourth, there are the questions related to the mind. For example, pertaining to objectivity of the universe itself, does it really exist independently of my own mind or does my mind create a world that is just a very convincing illusion? Moreover, do minds exist other than my own? Fifth, questions of ontology with ontology being defined as the study of the nature of being. So, what can we know about certain entities? What are their natures and characteristics? What are the differences between physical and non-physical entities? And can we categorize entities into classes to better understand them? Sixth, as also already noted, some metaphysical questions are theological in nature. Ontological questions pertaining to the nature of God and divine beings are discussed and debated. For example, does God or a god exist? What are the arguments for and against? Moreover, should we assume or argue for the existence of God, what does it mean to refer to God as existing in an atemporal sense? How does a immaterial entity relate to and interact with physical creation? Can a being that is omnipresent (existing in all places at once) exist?

It is clear that an engagement with metaphysics will expose one to several fields of philosophy from the Philosophy of Religion, to the Philosophy of Mind, and all in between. In our follow up essay we will be examining in some more detail why metaphysics is important.


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